Brands around the world have been feverishly trying to figure out how to pivot during the age of COVID-19. How should we change our offerings? What tone of voice should we use? How should it look?
Enter the master of the moment, Taylor Swift.
Swift’s transition from Country darling to Pop superstar is well documented. From 2006-2010, she sold millions of albums and won countless awards with her sweet, melodic Pop Country sound. 2012’s Red was the transition album that led to 1989 two years later, her straight-ahead Pop album.
The releases of the three monster Pop albums in a five-year span–1989, Reputation and Lover–were lessons in large-scale, bombastic (and effective) marketing. Swift teased 1989 on social media in August 2014. She did a live stream. She teased the artwork. There were “secret” listening sessions in hotel rooms. Songs were “leaked” early.
A few fortunate fans got to join Taylor Swift at secret listening sessions around album releases.
There was no marketing let-up on Reputation or Lover, including more secret sessions, partnerships with UPS and Amazon, an exclusive playlist on Spotify, a new line of clothing and her own music festival, Lover Fest, which, until the pandemic derailed plans, was to play stadiums this summer.
Now, Taylor Swift has delivered a master class on how to pivot your brand in a crisis. In a world filled with marketing extremes–either brands running over-cliched ad campaigns or ignoring the pandemic altogether–Taylor Swift did something so smart, you’d almost think it was done by accident.
She released her new album, Folklore with no fanfare at all.
The album was announced 16 hours prior to its availability. There were no singles released early to promote it. According to Swift, “My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world.”
Taylor Swift mastered the moment because she recognized and mirrored the mood of her audience. So much content we’re currently seeing and hearing was, of course, recorded long ago–they couldn’t have predicted where we’d be today. Folklore feels in the moment because it was recorded during the pandemic.
What techniques can your brand adopt from the “Folklore” launch?
Do something surprising. No one saw this album coming, so it felt like a gift, which made it feel more special.
Dial down the hype. Be wary of overloading with information because we have so much coming at us from every angle.
Be an Outside Thinker. When you put yourself in your consumer’s shoes, you win. From the stripped down music to the lessened hype to the somber black and white photo shoot, everything about the Folklore release feels like a recognition of where the listener is emotionally.
From Taylor Swift’s black and white Folklore photo shoot Credit: Beth Garrabrant
When will it be time to get back to normal and flip the old hype machine switch back on?
We can’t be sure, but you can bet Taylor Swift will know when it’s time.
Last Wednesday, our friends and frequent collaborators at Jacobs Media Strategies referenced Coleman Insights’ Image PyramidSM in an excellent blog post. The post raised questions about the role of Community imagery for radio brands and the impact the COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice movement may have on that role.
The Image Pyramid is a concept we use to help guide strategic brand-building for radio stations. Most important—as evidenced by it being the foundational layer of the Image Pyramid—is that the target audience understands your Base Music or Talk Position (for example, “the Hip Hop station” or “the Sports station”). From there, upper layers of the Image Pyramid can be thought of as brand depth, with Personality—having known and appreciated personalities who attract listening above and beyond what your Base Position alone would attract—being particularly important for many stations. At the top of the Image Pyramid is Community—being known for community involvement activities, such as raising money for a local charity or supporting local causes in other ways—and this is the layer discussed in Fred Jacobs’ blog last week.
The Coleman Insights Image Pyramid
One of the many reasons why I feel fortunate for knowing Fred Jacobs for more than 25 years is that he and his colleagues are always questioning conventional wisdom and the status quo. That’s why we welcome this questioning of the current configuration of the Image Pyramid; our goal is to make sure it continues to be a tool for building the strongest brands possible. In fact, this isn’t the first time we have been down this road; in 2015, Fred and I collaborated on a blog on the evolution of the Image Pyramid for the age of increased digital media consumption.
Before I address the specifics of Jacobs’ most recent blog, I think it’s important for everyone reading this to understand the purpose of the Image Pyramid. It’s not designed to represent a ranking of what listeners find most and least important in a radio station. Instead, it’s based on what we learn from research regarding which areas of image development contribute the most to building strong brands, which—when coupled with strong content execution—is the biggest factor in attracting listeners and generating long-term ratings success for radio stations. Community has been the smallest layer of the Image Pyramid not because it is unimportant, but because our experience has shown it to be less important than other dimensions in terms of driving listenership. Sure, listeners like that a radio station is a good steward in the community, but they don’t choose radio stations based on that criteria alone.
Conversely, Contests is prominent on the pyramid even though listeners often tell us that contests are not very important to them. We repeatedly see in strategic research that stations with strong imagery for Contests that complements their stronger images for their Base Music or Talk Position, Personality and Specialty Programming tend to enjoy greater ratings success than those without Contest imagery.
The Image Pyramid as it currently stands represents our best thinking based on what we have observed about recent research results and radio station ratings. We have never shied away from updating it and it has changed since Jon Coleman initially developed it decades ago. For example, Specialty Programming has a more prominent role than it used to, and the Marketing layer did not exist in early incarnations of the pyramid.
So, do we have Community in the right place? We’re certainly giving that a lot of thought, as demonstrated by a blog we published right as we began feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In “How to Connect with Your Audience in a Crisis,” published on March 19th, we stated explicitly, “In times of crisis, Community surges to a higher level of importance on the Image Pyramid.”
Community has played an important role for many radio stations over the past few months through outreach initiatives. (Pictured: The KSHE/St. Louis Summer Blood Drive)
The big question, of course, is what happens when the crisis subsides, which we all hope will happen sooner rather than later. Will the pandemic, the social justice movement and—as Jacobs rightly pointed out in their blog post—the seemingly increased attention consumers are paying to where the brands they consume stand on important issues result in a permanent change on how much Community imagery has on the ratings performance of radio stations? Will stations that have increased their Community imagery during this crisis enjoy long-term increases in their ratings success or will those strengthened images have minimal impact after the pandemic is over?
The answer is that we don’t know yet. David Leonhardt of the New York Times wrote a great Opinion piece this past Sunday in which he predicted—while admitting that he did not have the utmost confidence in his position—that the pandemic will be the most impactful event on our society since World War II and The Great Depression. At the same time, Leonhardt pointed out that, “The financial crisis of 2007-9 didn’t cause Americans to sour on stocks, and it didn’t lead to an overhaul of Wall Street. The election of the first Black president didn’t usher in an era of racial conciliation. The 9/11 attacks didn’t make Americans unwilling to fly. The Vietnam War didn’t bring an end to extended foreign wars without a clear mission.”
You have my assurance that Coleman Insights—working in concert with our clients, consultants like Fred Jacobs and other industry colleagues—will continue to track the changing factors in the ratings performances of radio stations, as we are continuously thinking about the way to help our radio clients build the very strongest brands. If Community’s place should be moved or if any other evolution of the Image Pyramid is warranted, we will make sure you are among the first to know.
A logical approach to programming strategy during just about any time other than the present would likely suggest that playing Christmas music in March would be a pretty dopey idea. But if one were to adopt an Outside Thinking philosophy–considering your brand from the viewpoint of your consumer–it may not be quite as nutty as it seems.
It’s not right for most brands, but for some that are already utilized for comfort and escape, maybe it’s not the craziest idea.
Inside Thinkers do things the way they’ve always been done, the way they know how.
Outside Thinkers think like their consumers, recognizing that whether they like it or not, Coronavirus is dominating their lives.
When you have a deep understanding of your brand and the need it fulfills, and you adapt that to the current lifestyle of the consumer, amazing things can happen. Even in the most uncertain of times. Maybe it’s time for your stations to spread some cheer!
As the world has turned upside down for the foreseeable future, the team at Coleman Insights has been engaged in conversations with our clients about how to navigate the new landscape. We recognize the ability of radio stations and other audio-based media to shine in moments of crisis, and there are already numerous examples of this occurring. On the other hand, we also recognize the lack of an “adversity road map.” There is no playbook that dictates how each brand should respond. Should you continue to deliver your format without any significant modifications? Is this a moment to break format completely and provide relevant crisis information instead? These are difficult strategic decisions. The specific choices are also hard.
Our consultant team has been having ongoing internal discussions about strategies for the audio entertainment industry. The result is the following special Thursday edition of Tuesdays With Coleman, a compilation of thoughts and ideas our team would like to share with you, with the understanding that there is no single solution for everyone.
Recognize unusual times call for unusual measures.
Everyone has something to contribute during a global emergency. Regardless of what your brand regularly delivers, your listeners are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and your response should reflect this. Your brand has a voice and a platform to be heard when listeners need it the most. Known, trusted personalities should play a major role and leverage the intimate connections they have with their listeners.
Consider the role of your brand in COVID-19 coverage.
Understand the need your brand fulfills.
News brands have a responsibility to provide comprehensive, relevant coverage. These brands might consider whether there are opportunities to go outside the typical format. For example, does more long-form programming or an increased number of updates make sense? These decisions should be determined by the role of the brand–in this case, being a provider of constant, reliable and trustworthy information during the crisis.
Listeners may be visiting your music station to get away from news coverage, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to stay connected. Does it make sense to employ a “We’re following the news so you don’t have to” approach? This allows talent to play a reassuring role; listeners can count on enjoying content on a music station without feeling like the world will pass by if they aren’t watching CNN or Fox News at that moment.
A full-service Adult Contemporary station may play a more personality-forward role of providing news and information. On the other hand, if your brand primarily provides comfort and escape, like a Soft Adult Contemporary radio station, constant news updates may be a harrowing intrusion and contrary to your brand. In fact, brands built on comfort and escape should lean in to that image, as it is particularly valuable when the real world is more chaotic.
Recognize that listening patterns are likely in significant flux.
If many people aren’t going to work or school, typical in-car commute listening levels no longer apply. What about everyone who is temporarily working from home? Or businesses that have been forced to close, like bars and restaurants? Will radio listening increase or decrease?
Reduced commuting will have a significant effect on listening patterns
With that in mind, consider the impact on how people may be consuming your station, podcast or streaming service and the programming options you may have.
With entire families now at home throughout the day, what about specialty programming geared to them during traditional at work hours? Should you do this on your main platform or would offering this through podcasts, separate streaming channels, etc. make more sense?
Aggressively promote all your listening platforms, keeping in mind that smart speaker listening is heavier at home than in the workplace and a surge of at home listening may be taking place.
Provide increased authentic and actionable listener engagement.
Listeners will find comfort in others going through the same issues. You may find yourself broadcasting from your home, which may be out of your comfort zone. Rather than trying to project a sense of business as usual, embrace the change! If the dog barks, the child screams or the husband sighs in the background, that’s real life. It’s exactly what your listener is going through. Let sharing be the mantra–you could, for example, have listeners upload pictures of their home offices to your social pages and share yours.
Find experts to feature on your shows. You don’t have to have all the COVID-19 answers yourself, and some of the best content is being generated by personalities across multiple formats interviewing those on the front lines of the crisis.
NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Director Anthony Fauci has been extremely media-friendly in providing crisis guidance
Consider taking more listener phone calls. Allow them to share feelings and information that may be valuable to other listeners.
Think about brand-appropriate actionable advice you can offer listeners that is applicable to the current environment (i.e., how to work at home while the kids are in online school, the best binge-able series on Netflix or which delivery services have waived their fees).
Modify your tone. Be empathetic to the new needs of an uncertain audience.
Rally your community.
In times of crisis, “Community” surges to a higher level of importance on the Image PyramidSM. As they would with aggressively promoting a Base Music or Talk position, brands should be going over the top with their community efforts. Build real community bulletins (here’s what is open, new hours for grocery stores, new restrictions, etc.). Be the voice of the community, invite listeners to participate and share as appropriate. Listeners will tell people where they can buy toilet paper (well, maybe they’ll share that information), who delivers groceries and how to find free learning resources for kids. Post the information on your website.
Don’t just think of your community as your market. Your community is your audience. A Hip Hop station and Classic Rock station will not rally the same communities, but each has the power to inspire, engage and activate their respective followers.
If you make a concerted effort now to think about what you can really do for your community and your audience, your efforts will create a halo over your brand when things settle down.
Consider reading two Tuesdays With Coleman posts in which we covered the important role of radio in a crisis:
What a difference a few weeks, days and hours makes.
Before the travel bans, before sports and concerts cancelled and before schools closed, I paid a visit to Syracuse University for my college radio station’s 35th annual reunion. I returned from that trip just nine days ago.
During the session, Brent brought up a principle that guides his show planning, called the POKE scale. As with many others in the industry, his brand stretches across platforms including hosting his own podcast. I wanted to know how Brent is using POKE to build his brand, develop compelling and engaging content and demonstrate differentiation as a reason for listening.
Just last Wednesday, we spent some time on the phone discussing it. Syracuse was set to play the University of North Carolina in the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament later that night. While we knew sports would soon be played without fans in the venues, the thought of cancelling them altogether hadn’t yet crossed our minds.
That was six days ago.
Brent and I discussed how POKE plays a role in his daily planning, including the way he covered Coronavirus on his sports talk show up to that point.
Perhaps there’s value now, more than ever, in applying the POKE scale to show prep–certainly in a format (Sports) built around something that currently, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist. In addition, as Brent explains, it is equally important to recognize when to make adjustments.
Read an edited transcript or listen to the entire interview below.
When I saw you in Syracuse, you mentioned the POKE scale. Talk about the acronym and what each letter means.
Passion, Opinion, Knowledge and Entertainment. I write my show notes on a legal pad. Every day on the top of the legal pad I write the date of the show and POKE. If you’re accomplishing those four things, particularly in the type of show I do, you’re checking the box.
Let’s start with Passion. The number one thing my listeners say to me is they appreciate my passion. They might not agree with what I’m saying, but they enjoy the manner in which I’m delivering it.
Opinion. Listeners are looking for you to have a defined, clear take. As we speak, Syracuse is getting ready to play in the ACC Tournament. They have to win to go to the NCAA Tournament. The discussion on the show is, “If they don’t win, is it a failed season?” If I don’t think it’s a failed season, I have to explain why.
Knowledge is prepping. And when you work in this industry, you’re constantly prepping. When you’re watching sports, you’re debating with yourself. First it’s, “Am I going to talk about this?” If the answer is yes, then it’s “How?” And how do I keep it entertaining for those that aren’t hard core sports fans?
Are you putting each topic through the POKE filter to determine how each break works within that structure?
I try to. The other day I talked about Coronavirus and I broke the Opinion rule. I said, it’s my job to have an opinion here, but this is a case where we don’t know enough to have a firm opinion. You can have an opinion, but you have to clarify it sometimes when it’s beyond the scale. This is real life interfering with sports, so I’ll be honest with my listeners. When I came on, I said, I’m not an expert, I know what I know, here’s the information we have, and let’s go from there. That’s where putting it through the filter doesn’t always work. I heard a call from Bob Costas who was talking about sports talk radio and the “First Take” shows of the world and podcasts, and Bob said you can’t possibly be that opinionated about something for three hours a day, five days a week. And he’s right. When I look at the four things in the POKE scale, (I might say) I can’t entertain you today. Coronavirus is a serious discussion. You’ve got to know when to break the rules and let people know that today’s a little different.
So many shows right now are trying to figure out how to handle approaching the Coronavirus. If you had handled it with updates like a hard news station, it would be out of left field and not consistent with your brand.
And that’s where Knowledge comes into play and applies to guests. If I don’t know, get somebody on that does. It’s growing so many different layers. Schools cancelling classes. Events that are being cancelled. What do I do as a fan? Do I go to games? This is not going anywhere anytime soon, so knowledge becomes important. Trusting sources, getting people on the air with you that can explain it. If you’re not knowledgeable about it – in this case it’s Coronavirus but it could be a 2-3 zone defense – get somebody on who is knowledgeable.
Do you think authenticity goes part and parcel with Passion?
Yes. You can’t control authenticity. Your audience is making that judgement. You’ve got to be authentic and people will appreciate that more.
Many hosts are afraid to give their opinion, whether it be because they fear it will be controversial or taken the wrong way. Do you always say what you believe or do you sometimes take an opinion you feel will be good for the show?
It’s important to me that my opinion–going back to that word we used a minute ago–is authentic. The opinion I give someone in public better be the same as it is on the radio.
On the topic of brand development, listeners will see through it if it doesn’t match the brand perception of who you are.
I’ve been doing radio in Syracuse since 1996. My listeners know certain things about me. I’ve had an opinion for years that Pete Rose should not be in the Hall of Fame and nothing has come along to change my opinion. So every time Hall of Fame voting comes around, I hear from people. “You still feel this way?” It can help build a brand and build awareness when people know what your opinion is.
Does the POKE scale work outside of Sports? Like for a morning show on a CHR or Hot AC station, for example?
Yes. For example, you need to be passionate about the market you work in. That’s essential. Having an opinion and gathering other opinions is important. Knowledge speaks for itself and we’re all entertainers! That’s what I love about the POKE scale. It does apply to just about everything you can do in this business.
We send our thanks to Brent for taking the time to share the principles of the POKE scale, and applaud every radio personality going above and beyond to serve their listeners in important, crucial and memorable ways.
BRANDING, CONTENT & RESEARCH STRATEGY
Subscribe to our weekly blog delivered fresh to your inbox every Tuesday.